Monschau – a beautiful German town on the border with Belgium

 

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Monschau, the main square

Summer has started and we have had our fair share of barbecues already. Crisis point was reached a few days ago when we ran out of our special mustards with tarragon and Riesling which we had purchased from our annual visit to Monschau, Germany during the Christmas season.

We had never visited the idyllic town during spring or summer for some reason and have always associated the town with winter especially given how spectacular it looks when it snows. So, we did what some might consider a crazy day trip, which is heading to Monschau to stock up on mustard lest our barbecues suffer from the lack of magic ingredients.

Now you might probably have realised that when it comes to food, I do not cut corners and am bound to take a detour if I can procure great ingredients. But, given the fact that until a few years ago, I was not really keen on mustard, you will understand that the Monschau mustards are indeed special. All it takes to convert to the joys of mustard are a trip to Dijon or Monschau, away from the commercial stuff you find in supermarkets.

But back to Monschau. Monschau is a beautiful town located in the hills of the North Eifel within the Hohes Venn – Eifel Nature Park in the narrow valley of the Rur river.

The historic town centre has many preserved half-timbered houses and beautiful narrow streets which look as if they have remained unchanged for time so long. The setting is fantastic given the town is literally in a valley and is surrounded by beautiful hills.

The town is extremely picturesque. In summer, all the restaurants and hotels have tables outside making dining al fresco a joy given the stunning vistas and fresh air.

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The Monschau city hall

A few shops are worth visiting including some cafes which serve typical German cakes. A bakery just off the main square has typical German breads and sweets from the region while the special mustard shop sells a lot of regional produce including alcohol and pork products.

Mustard here varies from the classic, which is spectacular used in a salad dressing, to tarragon, garlic, chili, green pepper, old German, Horseradish, English curry, caraway seeds, lemon, orange, tomato, currant, honey with poppy seeds, fig, Riesling, wild herbs, ginger and pineapple as well as the new beer mustard which also promises to lift our coming barbecues to something special.

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One of the many restaurants in the town

The drive there from Belgium is also spectacular. You pass through Eupen, a  very pretty Belgian town from the German speaking part of Belgium and then through the the Hautes Fagnes, which is the highest point in Belgium at an altitude of 694 metres.

Verdict: A great place to visit both in summer and winter. If you go in winter, try to visit when it has snowed because the charm of the place is incredible. In summer the town also has great charm.

 

 

 

 

Caffe al Dente – a wine lover’s den

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Caffe al Dente has an impressive selection of Italian wines – Photo taken from Caffe al Dente’s website

Ask any Italian, and there are many in Belgium, what their favourite Italian restaurant would be and you are likely to get a very different answer from each and every one of them.

Italians take their food very seriously but probably few as seriously as Federico of Caffe al Dente. A Roman who has settled in Brussels, he is obsessed with a simple rule “Il Pesce non si serve con il formaggio”, i.e. it is a sin to serve cheese with fish.

Now there are some who argue that the client is always right. At Caffe al Dente this is not necessarily the case. If you go there, you will notice that they take this rule extremely seriously. You will find an asterisk on the blackboard with the day’s menu telling you that the pasta dish with fish or shellfish will not be served with cheese on top, and there will be other small blackboards hanging around in the restaurant telling you that you should not put cheese on your spaghetti alle vongole (with clams).

Of course, there is no question that this would be akin to a mortal sin. But while the French or the British are known to use cheese with certain fish dishes, the rule is not as rigid as it sounds. There are some regions which are starting to experiment with fish based dishes and cheese. If you look at Sicilian cuisine, you are bound to find the occasional dish such as the polpette sarde (sardine balls) having pecorino inside. I have also come across a 2 Michelin star chef Gennaro Esposito of Torre del Saracino  who stuffs calamari with smoked cheese.

But back to Caffe al Dente. This is a really great place. Firstly it has an Italian wine list which is incredible in its depth. There are wines from pretty much all regions of Italy and most of the best wine houses are covered. The prices, compared to other Brussels restaurants are also very reasonable given that the wine list shows the price for buying the wines from the enoteca next door as well as those charged in the restaurant.

The menu is extremely simple so you might go there once and be disappointed because of the choice on offer. But the mantra is rather simple. They use what is available and what is in season. So you are unlikely to eat the same thing if you go on separate occasions. They have a choice of two or three antipasti, two or three pasta dishes and two or three main courses. The same goes for desserts.

I have eaten there on a few occasions and the food and service have always been good albeit sometimes slightly slow. But then, that allows you time to savour the atmosphere, drink wine in good company and to chat with Federico who is a very interesting character.

The time we asked him about the cheese philosophy he told us that a client had once walked out after insisting that he wanted cheese with his Spaghetti Marinara. He told us how, at one point his client asked him whether he was going to bring cheese or else he might as well give him the bill. He refused to take cheese to the table and sent the bill instead. The customer walked away angrily but Federico told us that he returned a few days later with an apology and a gift for him.

I am here to offer an authentic service he had told us. Most of the people who come here come for an authentic Italian experience. How can I serve cheese with fish if that is not how it is done in Italy? You must respect the place you are in but you must also understand our philosophy. You cannot really fault him with that.

Verdict: This is one of my favourite Italian restaurants in Brussels. The food is excellent, the atmosphere nice, the wine list for Italian wines is probably one of the best I have seen outside Italy. It is like going to an Italian enoteca. The good thing is that it is in Brussels. Booking recommended because it can fill up very easily.

Caffe al dente

Rue du Doyenné 85, 87, 1180 Bruxelles

Serious or not? The proof of the pudding is in the eating

Alain Passard is one of the most influential chefs in France. Thanks to my friend Eric who pointed me to this video, here you can see what it means to use top quality ingredients.

Passard is a chef who is obsessed with working with quality products, he has even created his own kitchen gardens for his restaurant.

Here in this video, you cannot but wonder whether he is serious or not about serving such a dish. Just a touch of olive oil at the end, some salt and that is it. No vinegar, no dressing, just prepped vegetables, salad leaves and herbs mixed together to bring about an explosion of freshness.

Does the dish work? Who knows. You may need to take a trip to Paris to try it at his 3-Michelin Star restaurant L’Arpege.

For sure, you need to be incredibly confident of the quality of the ingredients to let them shine like this. But it is also a lesson in simplicity and creativity.

City guides (1) – Modena – a delightful city for the gourmet traveller

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One of the narrow streets of Modena

Eyebrows were raised when I told some Italian friends that we were travelling to Modena for a weekend trip. Although Modena is renowned in Italy for its liquid gold or Aceto Balsamico, Parmigiano Reggiano, salumi such as the culatello and freshly made pasta many would probably skip a visit to this buzzing city unless they are either Ferrari fans or else heading for a gastronomic experience at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana (see review here) or his new casual brasserie Franceschetta58.

Why, did they ask, are you heading to Modena, when you can visit other places like Bologna, Ferrara, Parma or Verona for example.

Modena is a very welcoming city with a buzzing historical centre which turns to life in the evening as the streets are jam-packed with people or flocking the many bars and cafes that are dispersed around. On a warm evening, crowds spilled onto the streets drinking cooling drinks such as a glass of the regional Lambrusco, which tastes so much better on location. Here you will also find what is becoming a new trend in Italy, a choice of many Italian artisan beers.

On arrival we headed to Caffe Concerto (Piazza Grande), which is perfectly located in the Piazza Grande overlooking the splendid Romanesque cathedral of Modena. On a beautiful day, the terrace is filled with people sipping espressos in the morning or having an aperitivo in the evening. The Caffe also has a great interior which must look particularly welcoming in weekends. The restaurant menu is extremely interesting with focus on quality ingredients and the staff were very flexible given we ordered food for the children despite the fact that the restaurant was closed for a private function. This Caffe is a great place for people watching and is also where most seemed to hang-out before heading to the more trendy area around Piazza della Pomposa with its thriving bars and cafés.

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One of the stalls at Mercato Albinelli

Modena also houses a splendid food market, Mercato Albinelli, (Via Luigi Albinelli). When we visited the market, it was packed with locals making their daily shopping. The fare on offer was impressive, from different aged Parmigiano Reggiano to culatello, freshly made pasta to vegetables, fishmongers and meat shops as well as wine merchants selling top quality Italian wines from neighbouring regions. The shopkeepers are geared for tourists. Many things can be vacuum packed so if you are heading there make sure to leave space in your suitcase.

Like other Italian cities, Modena is also a great place for ice-cream. We came across Bloom Gelato (Via Farini), a splendid ice-cream parlour run by a passionate young ice-cream maker who is obsessed with quality ingredients. His ice-creams were sublime and he tasted some original flavours such as ricotta with an orange marmalade from Sicily for example.

If you want a great pizzeria, you should look no further than Pizza Erasmo. The place is full of locals and apart from the traditional pizzas also serves some special ones including the one I tried with straciatella di burrata and prosciutto crudo di Parma aged for 24 months as well as fior di latte.

A trip to Modena is not complete without a visit to Maranello, just a few kilometres away from Modena which is the home to the Ferrari factory as well as the Ferrari museum with a permanent display of over 50 cars.

The centre of Modena is full of boutiques.

A day trip to Bologna or Parma is only 45 minutes away by car.

We stayed at the Hotel Cervetta 5 (Via Cervetta). This is a nice 22-room hotel with an unbeatable location just next to the main square and cathedral and the Mercato Albinelli. Rooms looked better online but still pleasant and the hotel includes free Wi-Fi and a daily continental breakfast.